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Iraq: Chemical Threat Aimed At Offensive In Tal Afar

An Iraqi man (second from left) speaks with Iraqi and U.S. troops today in Tal Afar An Al-Qaeda-affiliated group has threatened to attack Iraqi and coalition forces with chemical weapons "within 24 hours" if they do not withdraw their troops from Tal Afar. The so-called Victorious Sect Army posted the statement to an Internet site on 11 September, and it appears aimed at inflicting psychological terror on the Iraqi population as well as on joint forces currently engaged in fierce fighting against the insurgents.

"The military bureau of the Victorious Sect Army has decided to respond and to attack strategic and sensitive targets for the occupation, the infidels, and the insurgents [referring to the Iraqi government] in Baghdad with unconventional and chemical weapons that were developed by the mujahedin...if the armed attack on the valiant city of jihad -- Tal Afar -- is not stopped within 24 hours," the statement warned.

The timing of this threat coincides with the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States by Al-Qaeda, and the group appears to be trying to build on the memory of those attacks in the minds of U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq.

It might also be construed as an attempt to incite fear among Iraqi civilians; its choice of language -- particularly the reference to "chemical weapons" -- is arguably reminiscent of the kind of terror perpetrated during 30 years of Ba'athist rule.

Viable Chemical Threat?

Mustafa Alani, director of the Security and Terror Affairs Department at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, told Al-Arabiyah television in an 11 September interview that the threat of chemical attack is real and should not be discounted. "I believe that the [Al-Qaeda] group acting in Iraq possesses or has produced chemical weapons. The problem lies in how these weapons are used and the targets they are used for. If chemical weapons are used in the open, they must be quite extensive to bring about any effect; but they can be used in closed [spaces] too," Alani said, adding: "We must take the threat seriously."

Alani noted that conventional weapons are often more destructive than chemical weapons. But he said the "psychological effect" of chemical weapons is far greater. Asked about the strength of Al-Qaeda today as compared to four years ago, Alani said that "the organization has reorganized itself completely." He added that Al-Qaeda has widened its geographical scope of attacks and is capable of carrying out "multi-target operations" such as the London bomb attacks in July.

Getting Less Attention

But the 11 September threat is not the first of its kind from the Victorious Sect Army. In March 2004, the group threatened U.S. and coalition forces, claiming it had planted "chemical and poisonous" bombs in locations frequented by the coalition, such as hotels and palaces belonging to the former regime. The group claimed at the time that individuals occupying those buildings would soon begin to "drop dead suddenly and mysteriously."

Little is known about the Victorious Sect Army, but it is believed to be an offshoot or "brigade" of the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army; it also has links to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's group, Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn. It was formed in May 2003 by al-Haj Uthman al-Iraqi and claims to comprise Iraqi fighters. Since its inception, it has regularly claimed responsibility for weapons attacks on coalition and Iraqi forces, as well as for kidnappings and assassinations of civilians and Iraqi leaders both in and out of government. On 31 August, it claimed responsibility for an attack in the Al-Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad as Shi'ites commemorated the martyrdom of Imam Musa al-Kadhim. That attack was followed by a stampede that left nearly 1,000 Iraqis dead and 500 wounded.
In March 2004, the same group threatened U.S. and coalition forces, claiming it had planted "chemical and poisonous" bombs in locations frequented by the coalition, such as hotels and palaces belonging to the former regime. The group claimed at the time that individuals occupying those buildings would soon begin to "drop dead suddenly and mysteriously."

Only two major Iraqi dailies -- "Al-Zaman" and "Al-Mashriq" -- appeared to cover the threat in their 12 September editions, suggesting that insurgent threats might gradually be losing effect. The media and the public alike have endured 2 1/2 years of life under siege -- including terrorist attack, kidnapping, and assassination.

The fact that insurgent groups are resorting to what must be viewed as empty threats -- at least in some cases -- is perhaps indicative of their current position in Iraq. While the insurgency rages on, there are growing signs that many once-passive Iraqis are turning on insurgents (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 19 August 2005). Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari told reporters at a 10 September press briefing in Baghdad that the current operation to drive insurgents from Tal Afar was launched following a written request from the people of that town.

Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi meanwhile told the same briefing that the situation in Tal Afar is much the same as in other parts of Iraq, and that residents of a number of cities have pleaded with the government for help. Addressing the citizens of Al-Ramadi, Al-Rawah, Al-Qa'im, and Samarra, al-Dulaymi said: "We are coming.... There will be no hideout for the terrorists, killers, and bloodsuckers," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported.

Other Similar Threats

The warning by the Victorious Sect Army came just days after another armed group threatened a chemical attack on the Green Zone that houses senior Iraqi and international officials in Baghdad. The National Islamic Resistance Group-the 1920 Revolution Brigades warned in an e-mail last week to Al-Arabiyah television that it was planning to use a chemical bomb against the Green Zone within a week, the station reported on 8 September. Al-Qaeda-Europe also issued a threat on 11 September, saying it would avenge the jailing, torture, and killing of Muslims through attacks similar to those it claimed to have carried out in London in July.

Another jihadist website on 8 September noted that leaflets had been distributed in Baghdad, Diyala, Al-Fallujah, Mosul, and Samarra warning Iraqis to stay away from U.S. bases and vehicles in the coming days, as "deadly attacks" were planned. The leaflets were reportedly signed by six groups: the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army; Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn; the Islamic Army in Iraq, Jaysh Muhammad; the Mujahedin Army; and the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

An audiotape statement attributed to Al-Qaeda associate al-Zarqawi was posted to the Internet on 11 September in which the speaker accuses U.S. forces of using chemical weapons against Iraqis in Al-Qa'im and Tal Afar. The speaker claims that the mujahedin nevertheless drove U.S. forces from Al-Qa'im, and will soon drive them from Tal Afar.

The speaker, purportedly Al-Zarqawi, also accuses the al-Ja'fari government of denying Sunni Arabs their rights. Claiming that "the final battle is near," al-Zarqawi called on mujahedin to fight in Iraq, telling those outside Iraq to support the mujahedin as much as they can. "Victory belongs to this religion, no matter how long the night of the unjust is," the speaker says. "Night is about to end and dawn is about to break. The banner of monotheism will be raised and the banner of infidelity will be humiliated."

Meanwhile, the Islamic Army in Iraq announced a reward for any fighter who assassinates Prime Minister al-Ja'fari, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, or Defense Minister al-Dulaymi in revenge for the operation in Tal Afar, Al-Manar television announced on 12 September.

Highlighting Weakness?

Taken as a whole, these threats appear to point to a weakness in the insurgency. Al-Zarqawi's purported statement is yet another attempt to incite sectarian violence by prodding Sunni Arabs to defend their kinsmen in Tal Afar (who he claims are under chemical attack) and to fight for their rights under a Shi'ite-led government.

The speaker claims that the "final battle is near," and seeks to elicit a push by insurgents fighting in Iraq and to prompt those considering jihad to join quickly if they want to be a part of the "final battle." It might also indicate that the insurgency is tired, weak, and fractured -- and perhaps desperate for new recruits.

By calling for the assassination of the prime minister and key members of his cabinet, the insurgency presumably hopes to bring about a complete breakdown of the central government, which would throw Iraq into chaos, thereby refocusing the attention of the government and multinational force on Baghdad and, at least temporarily, away from the insurgents' strongholds -- such as the border towns of Tal Afar and Al-Qa'im.

See also:

"Operation In Tal Afar A Success, But For How Long?"

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